The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James


As soon as her sister was married she went down to Mrs. Gereth at Ricks — a promise to this effect having been promptly exacted and given; and her inner vision was much more fixed on the alterations there, complete now, as she understood, than on the success of her plotting and pinching for Maggie’s happiness. Her imagination, in the interval, had indeed had plenty to do and numerous scenes to visit; for when on the summons just mentioned it had taken a flight from West Kensington to Ricks, it had hung but an hour over the terrace of painted pots and then yielded to a current of the upper air that swept it straight off to Poynton and to Waterbath. Not a sound had reached her of any supreme clash, and Mrs. Gereth had communicated next to nothing; giving out that, as was easily conceivable, she was too busy, too bitter, and too tired for vain civilities. All she had written was that she had got the new place well in hand and that Fleda would be surprised at the way it was turning out. Everything was even yet upside down; nevertheless, in the sense of having passed the threshold of Poynton for the last time, the amputation, as she called it, had been performed. Her leg had come off — she had now begun to stump along with the lovely wooden substitute; she would stump for life, and what her young friend was to come and admire was the beauty of her movement and the noise she made about the house. The reserve of Poynton and Waterbath had been matched by the austerity of Fleda’s own secret, under the discipline of which she had repeated to herself a hundred times a day that she rejoiced at having cares that excluded all thought of it. She had lavished herself, in act, on Maggie and the curate, and had opposed to her father’s selfishness a sweetness quite ecstatic. The young couple wondered why they had waited so long, since everything was after all so easy. She had thought of everything, even to how the “quietness” of the wedding should be relieved by champagne and her father kept brilliant on a single bottle. Fleda knew, in short, and liked the knowledge, that for several weeks she had appeared exemplary in every relation of life.

She had been perfectly prepared to be surprised at Ricks, for Mrs. Gereth was a wonder-working wizard, with a command, when all was said, of good material; but the impression in wait for her on the threshold made her catch her breath and falter. Dusk had fallen when she arrived, and in the plain square hall, one of the few good features, the glow of a Venetian lamp just showed, on either wall, the richness of an admirable tapestry. This instant perception that the place had been dressed at the expense of Poynton was a shock: it was as if she had abruptly seen herself in the light of an accomplice. The next moment, folded in Mrs. Gereth’s arms, her eyes were diverted; but she had already had, in a flash, the vision of the great gaps in the other house. The two tapestries, not the largest, but those most splendidly toned by time, had been on the whole its most uplifted pride. When she could really see again she was on a sofa in the drawing-room, staring with intensity at an object soon distinct as the great Italian cabinet that, at Poynton, had been in the red saloon. Without looking, she was sure the room was occupied with other objects like it, stuffed with as many as it could hold of the trophies of her friend’s struggle. By this time the very fingers of her glove, resting on the seat of the sofa, had thrilled at the touch of an old velvet brocade, a wondrous texture that she could recognize, would have recognized among a thousand, without dropping her eyes on it. They stuck to the cabinet with a kind of dissimulated dread, while she painfully asked herself whether she should notice it, notice everything, or just pretend not to be affected. How could she pretend not to be affected, with the very pendants of the lustres tinkling at her and with Mrs. Gereth, beside her and staring at her even as she herself stared at the cabinet, hunching up a back like Atlas under his globe? She was appalled at this image of what Mrs. Gereth had on her shoulders. That lady was waiting and watching her, bracing herself, and preparing the same face of confession and defiance she had shown the day, at Poynton, she had been surprised in the corridor. It was farcical not to speak; and yet to exclaim, to participate, would give one a bad sense of being mixed up with a theft. This ugly word sounded, for herself, in Fleda’s silence, and the very violence of it jarred her into a scared glance, as of a creature detected, to right and left. But what again the full picture most showed her was the far-away empty sockets, a scandal of nakedness in high, bare walls. She at last uttered something formal and incoherent — she didn’t know what: it had no relation to either house. Then she felt Mrs. Gereth’s hand once more on her arm. “I’ve arranged a charming room for you — it’s really lovely. You’ll be very happy there.” This was spoken with extraordinary sweetness and with a smile that meant, “Oh, I know what you’re thinking; but what does it matter when you’re so loyally on my side?” It had come indeed to a question of “sides,” Fleda thought, for the whole place was in battle array. In the soft lamplight, with one fine feature after another looming up into sombre richness, it defied her not to pronounce it a triumph of taste. Her passion for beauty leaped back into life; and was not what now most appealed to it a certain gorgeous audacity? Mrs. Gereth’s high hand was, as mere great effect, the climax of the impression.

“It’s too wonderful, what you’ve done with the house!” — the visitor met her friend’s eyes. They lighted up with joy — that friend herself so pleased with what she had done. This was not at all, in its accidental air of enthusiasm, what Fleda wanted to have said: it offered her as stupidly announcing from the first minute on whose side she was. Such was clearly the way Mrs. Gereth took it: she threw herself upon the delightful girl and tenderly embraced her again; so that Fleda soon went on, with a studied difference and a cooler inspection: “Why, you brought away absolutely everything!”

“Oh no, not everything; I saw how little I could get into this scrap of a house. I only brought away what I required.”

Fleda had got up; she took a turn round the room. “You ‘required’ the very best pieces — the morceaux de musée, the individual gems!”

“I certainly didn’t want the rubbish, if that’s what you mean.” Mrs. Gereth, on the sofa, followed the direction of her companion’s eyes; with the light of her satisfaction still in her face, she slowly rubbed her large, handsome hands. Wherever she was, she was herself the great piece in the gallery. It was the first Fleda had heard of there being “rubbish” at Poynton, but she didn’t for the moment take up this insincerity; she only, from where she stood in the room, called out, one after the other, as if she had had a list in her hand, the pieces that in the great house had been scattered and that now, if they had a fault, were too much like a minuet danced on a hearth-rug. She knew them each, in every chink and charm — knew them by the personal name their distinctive sign or story had given them; and a second time she felt how, against her intention, this uttered knowledge struck her hostess as so much free approval. Mrs. Gereth was never indifferent to approval, and there was nothing she could so love you for as for doing justice to her deep morality. There was a particular gleam in her eyes when Fleda exclaimed at last, dazzled by the display: “And even the Maltese cross!” That description, though technically incorrect, had always been applied, at Poynton, to a small but marvelous crucifix of ivory, a masterpiece of delicacy, of expression, and of the great Spanish period, the existence and precarious accessibility of which she had heard of at Malta, years before, by an odd and romantic chance — a clue followed through mazes of secrecy till the treasure was at last unearthed.

“‘Even’ the Maltese cross?” Mrs. Gereth rose as she sharply echoed the words. “My dear child, you don’t suppose I’d have sacrificed that! For what in the world would you have taken me?”

“A bibelot the more or the less,” Fleda said, “could have made little difference in this grand general view of you. I take you simply for the greatest of all conjurers. You’ve operated with a quickness — and with a quietness!” Her voice trembled a little as she spoke, for the plain meaning of her words was that what her friend had achieved belonged to the class of operation essentially involving the protection of darkness. Fleda felt she really could say nothing at all if she couldn’t say that she knew what the danger had been. She completed her thought by a resolute and perfectly candid question: “How in the world did you get off with them?”

Mrs. Gereth confessed to the fact of danger with a cynicism that surprised the girl. “By calculating, by choosing my time. I was quiet, and I was quick. I manoeuvred; then at the last rushed!” Fleda drew a long breath: she saw in the poor woman something much better than sophistical ease, a crude elation that was a comparatively simple state to deal with. Her elation, it was true, was not so much from what she had done as from the way she had done it — by as brilliant a stroke as any commemorated in the annals of crime. “I succeeded because I had thought it all out and left nothing to chance: the whole process was organized in advance, so that the mere carrying it into effect took but a few hours. It was largely a matter of money: oh, I was horribly extravagant — I had to turn on so many people. But they were all to be had — a little army of workers, the packers, the porters, the helpers of every sort, the men with the mighty vans. It was a question of arranging in Tottenham Court Road and of paying the price. I haven’t paid it yet; there’ll be a horrid bill; but at least the thing’s done! Expedition pure and simple was the essence of the bargain. ‘I can give you two days,’ I said; ‘I can’t give you another second.’ They undertook the job, and the two days saw them through. The people came down on a Tuesday morning; they were off on the Thursday. I admit that some of them worked all Wednesday night. I had thought it all out; I stood over them; I showed them how. Yes, I coaxed them, I made love to them. Oh, I was inspired — they found me wonderful. I neither ate nor slept, but I was as calm as I am now. I didn’t know what was in me; it was worth finding out. I’m very remarkable, my dear: I lifted tons with my own arms. I’m tired, very, very tired; but there’s neither a scratch nor a nick, there isn’t a teacup missing.” Magnificent both in her exhaustion and in her triumph, Mrs. Gereth sank on the sofa again, the sweep of her eyes a rich synthesis and the restless friction of her hands a clear betrayal. “Upon my word,” she laughed, “they really look better here!”

Fleda had listened in awe. “And no one at Poynton said anything? There was no alarm?”

“What alarm should there have been? Owen left me almost defiantly alone: I had taken a time that I had reason to believe was safe from a descent.” Fleda had another wonder, which she hesitated to express: it would scarcely do to ask Mrs. Gereth if she hadn’t stood in fear of her servants. She knew, moreover, some of the secrets of her humorous household rule, all made up of shocks to shyness and provocations to curiosity — a diplomacy so artful that several of the maids quite yearned to accompany her to Ricks. Mrs. Gereth, reading sharply the whole of her visitor’s thought, caught it up with fine frankness. “You mean that I was watched — that he had his myrmidons, pledged to wire him if they should see what I was ‘up to’? Precisely. I know the three persons you have in mind: I had them in mind myself. Well, I took a line with them — I settled them.”

Fleda had had no one in particular in mind; she had never believed in the myrmidons; but the tone in which Mrs. Gereth spoke added to her suspense. “What did you do to them?”

“I took hold of them hard — I put them in the forefront. I made them work.”

“To move the furniture?”

“To help, and to help so as to please me. That was the way to take them; it was what they had least expected. I marched up to them and looked each straight in the eye, giving him the chance to choose if he’d gratify me or gratify my son. He gratified me. They were too stupid!”

Mrs. Gereth massed herself there more and more as an immoral woman, but Fleda had to recognize that she too would have been stupid and she too would have gratified her. “And when did all this take place?”

“Only last week; it seems a hundred years. We’ve worked here as fast as we worked there, but I’m not settled yet: you’ll see in the rest of the house. However, the worst is over.”

“Do you really think so?” Fleda presently inquired. “I mean, does he, after the fact, as it were, accept it?”

“Owen — what I’ve done? I haven’t the least idea,” said Mrs. Gereth.

“Does Mona?”

“You mean that she’ll be the soul of the row?”

“I hardly see Mona as the ‘soul’ of anything,” the girl replied. “But have they made no sound? Have you heard nothing at all?”

“Not a whisper, not a step, in all the eight days. Perhaps they don’t know. Perhaps they’re crouching for a leap.”

“But wouldn’t they have gone down as soon as you left?”

“They may not have known of my leaving.” Fleda wondered afresh; it struck her as scarcely supposable that some sign shouldn’t have flashed from Poynton to London. If the storm was taking this term of silence to gather, even in Mona’s breast, it would probably discharge itself in some startling form. The great hush of every one concerned was strange; but when she pressed Mrs. Gereth for some explanation of it, that lady only replied, with her brave irony: “Oh, I took their breath away!” She had no illusions, however; she was still prepared to fight. What indeed was her spoliation of Poynton but the first engagement of a campaign?

All this was exciting, but Fleda’s spirit dropped, at bedtime, in the chamber embellished for her pleasure, where she found several of the objects that in her earlier room she had most admired. These had been reinforced by other pieces from other rooms, so that the quiet air of it was a harmony without a break, the finished picture of a maiden’s bower. It was the sweetest Louis Seize, all assorted and combined — old chastened, figured, faded France. Fleda was impressed anew with her friend’s genius for composition. She could say to herself that no girl in England, that night, went to rest with so picked a guard; but there was no joy for her in her privilege, no sleep even for the tired hours that made the place, in the embers of the fire and the winter dawn, look gray, somehow, and loveless. She couldn’t care for such things when they came to her in such ways; there was a wrong about them all that turned them to ugliness. In the watches of the night she saw Poynton dishonored; she had cared for it as a happy whole, she reasoned, and the parts of it now around her seemed to suffer like chopped limbs. Before going to bed she had walked about with Mrs. Gereth and seen at whose expense the whole house had been furnished. At poor Owen’s, from top to bottom — there wasn’t a chair he hadn’t sat upon. The maiden aunt had been exterminated — no trace of her to tell her tale. Fleda tried to think of some of the things at Poynton still unappropriated, but her memory was a blank about them, and in trying to focus the old combinations she saw again nothing but gaps and scars, a vacancy that gathered at moments into something worse. This concrete image was her greatest trouble, for it was Owen Gereth’s face, his sad, strange eyes, fixed upon her now as they had never been. They stared at her out of the darkness, and their expression was more than she could bear: it seemed to say that he was in pain and that it was somehow her fault. He had looked to her to help him, and this was what her help had been. He had done her the honor to ask her to exert herself in his interest, confiding to her a task of difficulty, but of the highest delicacy. Hadn’t that been exactly the sort of service she longed to render him? Well, her way of rendering it had been simply to betray him and hand him over to his enemy. Shame, pity, resentment oppressed her in turn; in the last of these feelings the others were quickly submerged. Mrs. Gereth had imprisoned her in that torment of taste; but it was clear to her for an hour at least that she might hate Mrs. Gereth.

Something else, however, when morning came, was even more intensely definite: the most odious thing in the world for her would be ever again to meet Owen. She took on the spot a resolve to neglect no precaution that could lead to her going through life without that accident. After this, while she dressed, she took still another. Her position had become, in a few hours, intolerably false; in as few more hours as possible she would therefore put an end to it. The way to put an end to it would be to inform Mrs. Gereth that, to her great regret, she couldn’t be with her now, couldn’t cleave to her to the point that everything about her so plainly urged. She dressed with a sort of violence, a symbol of the manner in which this purpose was precipitated. The more they parted company the less likely she was to come across Owen; for Owen would be drawn closer to his mother now by the very necessity of bringing her down. Fleda, in the inconsequence of distress, wished to have nothing to do with her fall; she had had too much to do with everything. She was well aware of the importance, before breakfast and in view of any light they might shed on the question of motive, of not suffering her invidious expression of a difference to be accompanied by the traces of tears; but it none the less came to pass, downstairs, that after she had subtly put her back to the window, to make a mystery of the state of her eyes, she stupidly let a rich sob escape her before she could properly meet the consequences of being asked if she wasn’t delighted with her room. This accident struck her on the spot as so grave that she felt the only refuge to be instant hypocrisy, some graceful impulse that would charge her emotion to the quickened sense of her friend’s generosity — a demonstration entailing a flutter round the table and a renewed embrace, and not so successfully improvised but that Fleda fancied Mrs. Gereth to have been only half reassured. She had been startled, at any rate, and she might remain suspicious: this reflection interposed by the time, after breakfast, the girl had recovered sufficiently to say what was in her heart. She accordingly didn’t say it that morning at all: she had absurdly veered about; she had encountered the shock of the fear that Mrs. Gereth, with sharpened eyes, might wonder why the deuce (she often wondered in that phrase) she had grown so warm about Owen’s rights. She would doubtless, at a pinch, be able to defend them on abstract grounds, but that would involve a discussion, and the idea of a discussion made her nervous for her secret. Until in some way Poynton should return the blow and give her a cue, she must keep nervousness down; and she called herself a fool for having forgotten, however briefly, that her one safety was in silence.

Directly after luncheon Mrs. Gereth took her into the garden for a glimpse of the revolution — or at least, said the mistress of Ricks, of the great row — that had been decreed there; but the ladies had scarcely placed themselves for this view before the younger one found herself embracing a prospect that opened in quite another quarter. Her attention was called to it, oddly, by the streamers of the parlor-maid’s cap, which, flying straight behind the neat young woman who unexpectedly burst from the house and showed a long red face as she ambled over the grass, seemed to articulate in their flutter the name that Fleda lived at present only to catch. “Poynton — Poynton!” said the morsels of muslin; so that the parlor-maid became on the instant an actress in the drama, and Fleda, assuming pusillanimously that she herself was only a spectator, looked across the footlights at the exponent of the principal part. The manner in which this artist returned her look showed that she was equally preoccupied. Both were haunted alike by possibilities, but the apprehension of neither, before the announcement was made, took the form of the arrival at Ricks, in the flesh, of Mrs. Gereth’s victim. When the messenger informed them that Mr. Gereth was in the drawing-room, the blank “Oh!” emitted by Fleda was quite as precipitate as the sound on her hostess’s lips, besides being, as she felt, much less pertinent. “I thought it would be somebody,” that lady afterwards said; “but I expected on the whole a solicitor’s clerk.” Fleda didn’t mention that she herself had expected on the whole a pair of constables. She was surprised by Mrs. Gereth’s question to the parlor-maid.

“For whom did he ask?”

“Why, for you, of course, dearest friend!” Fleda interjected, falling instinctively into the address that embodied the intensest pressure. She wanted to put Mrs. Gereth between her and her danger.

“He asked for Miss Vetch, mum,” the girl replied, with a face that brought startlingly to Fleda’s ear the muffled chorus of the kitchen.

“Quite proper,” said Mrs. Gereth austerely. Then to Fleda: “Please go to him.”

“But what to do?”

“What you always do — to see what he wants.” Mrs. Gereth dismissed the maid. “Tell him Miss Vetch will come.” Fleda saw that nothing was in the mother’s imagination at this moment but the desire not to meet her son. She had completely broken with him, and there was little in what had just happened to repair the rupture. It would now take more to do so than his presenting himself uninvited at her door. “He’s right in asking for you — he’s aware that you’re still our communicator; nothing has occurred to alter that. To what he wishes to transmit through you I’m ready, as I’ve been ready before, to listen. As far as I’m concerned, if I couldn’t meet him a month ago, how am I to meet him to-day? If he has come to say, ‘My dear mother, you’re here, in the hovel into which I’ve flung you, with consolations that give me pleasure,’ I’ll listen to him; but on no other footing. That’s what you’re to ascertain, please. You’ll oblige me as you’ve obliged me before. There!” Mrs. Gereth turned her back and, with a fine imitation of superiority, began to redress the miseries immediately before her. Fleda meanwhile hesitated, lingered for some minutes where she had been left, feeling secretly that her fate still had her in hand. It had put her face to face with Owen Gereth, and it evidently meant to keep her so. She was reminded afresh of two things: one of which was that, though she judged her friend’s rigor, she had never really had the story of the scene enacted in the great awestricken house between the mother and the son weeks before — the day the former took to her bed in her over-throw; the other was, that at Ricks as at Poynton, it was before all things her place to accept thankfully a usefulness not, she must remember, universally acknowledged. What determined her at the last, while Mrs. Gereth disappeared in the shrubbery, was that, though she was at a distance from the house and the drawing-room was turned the other way, she could absolutely see the young man alone there with the sources of his pain. She saw his simple stare at his tapestries, heard his heavy tread on his carpets and the hard breath of his sense of unfairness. At this she went to him fast.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56